Ventura Haunts Minnesota Senate Race as Barkley Taps Voter Ire
Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Minnesota has seen this movie.
Ten years ago, a gregarious professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, won the race for governor by tapping into voter anger and running as a third-party candidate.
This year, Dean Barkley, Ventura's former campaign manager, is trying to produce a sequel by vying for a U.S. Senate seat. While one of the major-party candidates is favored to win the race, high economic anxiety and Congress' record-low approval ratings have given Barkley a lift in state polls.
``Something's got to be done and I don't think Republicans or Democrats can do it,'' Gary Lilya, a 64-year-old Democrat said after meeting Barkley at a diner in Rochester.
The race already had developed into one of the most closely watched in the country, with comedian Al Franken, a Democrat, challenging Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman.
Democrats had counted on Franken, 57, benefiting from the anti-Washington climate fueled by economic hard times. Enter into the race Barkley, who has a paid staff of two and $75,000 in campaign funds. He briefly served as a U.S. senator once already when Ventura appointed him to serve the final two months of Paul Wellstone's term after the Democrat died in a plane crash in 2002.
Barkley, 58, has changed the dynamic by turning the race into a dead heat. In a survey conducted by Quinnipiac University Oct. 8-12, Franken was ahead of Coleman by 2 percentage points, within the poll's 3-point margin of error. Barkley, running this year on the Independence Party of Minnesota ticket, polled 18 percent, drawing almost equally from Democrats and Republicans.
``The impact of Barkley on the race is very unpredictable,'' said Lawrence Jacobs, the director of the center for the study of politics and governance at the University of Minnesota.
Over a roast beef dinner at Grandma's Kitchen in Rochester on Oct. 14, Barkley said voters are ``sick and tired of Congress'' and that creates an even greater opportunity for an independent than existed when he managed Ventura's surprise victory.
``Ten years ago, the economy was good, everyone was happy, we didn't have a war,'' Barkley said. Now, ``the stars are in alignment much more now than ever before.''
Barkley said his candidacy is being helped by Minnesota's long tradition of third parties. The Democratic Party in the state is a combination of the Democrat-Farmer-Labor parties that fielded separate candidates until a merger 64 years ago. Barkley ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as an independent in 1992, and won 16 percent of the vote. This year, he is being included in all five candidate debates.
``There is kind of an acceptability, credibility, legitimacy for third-party candidates,'' Jacobs said. ``You look at some states, it's hard for them to be taken seriously. Not so in Minnesota.''
The two major-party candidates have had their stumbles, though Coleman has been battered by the plunging popularity of President George W. Bush and the crisis in the financial markets.
After Coleman, 59, voted Oct. 2 to back a $700 billion financial rescue package, his 9-point lead in a Minnesota Public Radio survey became a 4-point deficit.
``I may lose an election over that vote,'' Coleman said after speaking to supporters in Winona on Oct. 15. ``But I have no doubt that sitting by and doing nothing would have fed into the destruction of our economic system.''
Franken has had troubles, too; in April came news that he had been forced to pay $70,000 in back taxes and penalties in 17 states where he had made paid appearances from 2003 to 2006. He blamed an accountant's mistake for the problem.
And in May he had to apologize for off-color jokes about rape he made 13 years ago while discussing a skit for NBC's ``Saturday Night Live,'' and a humor article he wrote in 2000 in Playboy magazine about sex with robots.
Neither Coleman nor Franken said they were concerned about a third candidate siphoning off their support.
During a debate in Duluth on Oct. 16, Barkley said both political parties were ``equally guilty'' of causing the current financial crisis and that Americans have ``lost faith'' in their government.
``Sadly, the only thing Republicans and Democrats seem to care about is power,'' Barkley said. ``Washington will get a real wake-up call if you send me to the Senate.''
Some of the sharpest clashes during the 90-minute debate were over the Iraq War. Franken, who like Barkley has called for troop-withdrawal timetables, said he was ``astounded'' that Coleman hasn't admitted the war is a mistake.
``I'm not going to tell the parents of any kid who died in Iraq that they died for a mistake,'' Coleman replied.
Even if Barkley doesn't win the race, he almost certainly will shape it. The Democrats calculate that if Obama wins the state by 10 points or more -- a Quinnipiac University/Wall Street Journal poll Oct. 14 gave him an 11-point lead -- he will carry Franken along with him.
Jacobs, however, said the Barkley factor may work to the Republicans' advantage.
``The Republicans tend to come back home more than the Democrats,'' Jacobs said.
Barkley said he remembers the 1998 movie starring Ventura. He said Ventura never polled higher than 27 percent in his successful campaign and if he can break the 20 percentage-point level this year, ``People start to think: `My God, maybe he can win.'''